Phil Dellio had the Apu Trilogy at #15 when we did our top 50 fave movies a few years back, so I’m only fulfilling 1/3 of the request so far. I’m surprised I had never seen these movies before, but I am woefully behind on Ray, having only seen Charulata in the early 70s and The Music Room more recently. The Apu Trilogy has been restored, so I was able to record all three films, and the other two will follow eventually.
Ray was encouraged by Jean Renoir when the latter was in India making The River, and you can see some of Renoir’s feel for the basic humanity of his characters in Pather Panchali. There is so much to admire about this film, but the treatment of the characters might be the best part, for Ray doesn’t judge them for their poverty. He used a lot of non-professional actors ... hell, he was a non-professional, the first day he spent making a movie was the first day of this film. This was reportedly also true for Subrata Mitra, the photographer-turned-cinematographer. Honestly, there were so many road blocks to the making of Pather Panchali that it’s hard to believe all of them are true. Perhaps my favorite (this comes from the IMDB): it took some years to complete the film, which features a young boy (Apu), and young girl (his sister), and a very old woman (the village “Auntie”). Ray said all three were part of the miraculous completion of the film: the young boy’s voice did not break, the young girl didn’t grow up, and the old woman didn’t die.
About that old woman. She is the damnedest thing. She was played by Chunibala Devi, who was born in 1872 and had been in a few films in the 1930s. While she lived through the filming, she died before the movie’s release. She is so old, and it’s clearly not a trick of makeup ... Devi is stooped over into a hunchback, she is missing most of her teeth (and her hair), she can barely walk. But she’s a sharp cookie (not just the character, but Devi, who impressed Ray when they first met). As Phil wrote, “you will literally never encounter anyone else remotely like her in any other film.”
The film looks beautiful. I don’t think it romanticizes poverty, but we are aware of the pleasures of the land. Ray takes his time, both as a storyteller and in the film making as a whole ... there are long takes that he is content to let run. It is a peaceful film, except when the realities of the characters’ poverty hit home.
It is easy to see why Pather Panchali is so highly regarded, and I will watch the other two movies in the trilogy. But ultimately, for me, it falls into the category of “admired more than loved”. Maybe the languid pace gave me too much time to think, but I wasn’t as drawn in emotionally as I expected. It’s importance in Indian and World cinema is clear, and I have no problem recommending it. I just wish I had felt more sucked into its pleasures. #59 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.